September 2, 2023 

Kayla Thornton signs two-year extension with New York Liberty

'To even have that offer, that’s just something I couldn’t turn down'

BROOKLYN — Before the New York Liberty’s morning shootaround on Friday, the team announced that it had signed 6’1 wing Kayla Thornton to an extension through 2025. Thornton was acquired in February in a three-team trade that also brought 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to New York.

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Thornton’s extension is protected in both years, and she’ll earn $110,000 in 2024 and $112,000 in 2025. Those numbers are minimally more than her 2023 salary of $109,716. Her Hoop Stats’ Richard Cohen first reported the terms, and The Next‘s Howard Megdal confirmed them.

Thornton has been incredibly impactful for the Liberty this season defensively. The team allows just 96.1 points per 100 possessions when she’s on the court, according to PBP Stats. In those minutes, the Liberty also limit opponents to 44.2% shooting on 2-pointers and 31.0% on 3-pointers.

Thornton’s ability to produce when needed on the offensive end has also been valuable. She made two pivotal 3-pointers in the Liberty’s win over the Las Vegas Aces in the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup on Aug. 15.

Thornton began the season on a tear from that distance, shooting 41.2% from beyond the arc prior to the All-Star break. Overall, she is shooting 32.4% from three on 71 total attempts this season. Those numbers are very similar to what she produced for the Dallas Wings last season, when she made 32.5% of her threes on 75 total attempts.

Oftentimes, though, Thornton’s impact doesn’t come from the stats that are calculated, but rather in what isn’t recorded.

“She’s a 3-and-D [player] and does all the little grunty things [that] sometimes go unnoticed in the stat sheet but not unnoticed to us,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said on Aug. 26. “And how effective she [has been] has helped us to have a really good season.”

Ever since general manager Jonathan Kolb arrived in New York in 2019, the team had sought a reliable 3-point shooter and defender who could consistently guard post players as well as smaller, quicker guards. Former Liberty wing Rebecca Allen fit that mold well, but with her lanky frame, she struggled defending some more muscular and physical power forwards. Thornton played most of her career in Dallas as a four, and when she came to New York, the coaching staff helped her adjust to the three. She had to learn how to cut in space on offense and refine how she defends smaller guards on the perimeter.

Earlier this season, Thornton struggled defending shooting guards. For example, she picked up two flagrant fouls on Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi on July 5 for reckless closeouts and was ejected. But since then, she’s held her own and adapted to whatever the Liberty need. Whether that’s coming in for Betnijah Laney at the three or switching to the four when the Liberty want to play smaller with Breanna Stewart at the five, Thornton has adjusted to a task that isn’t the most intuitive.

“It’s hard to play two different positions,” Brondello said. “But she’s been big for us, and she’s willing to do whatever this team needs.”

But the Liberty sought Thornton out in the offseason for reasons beyond what she can do on the basketball court. Kolb has long appreciated her professionalism, personality and compatibility as a teammate. He told reporters on Aug. 28 that he had been trying to acquire Thornton “for many years.”

In the Liberty’s press release announcing the extension, Kolb added, “From the moment KT arrived in Brooklyn, she has exceeded the standards of resilience, physicality, consistency and character that embodies the New York Liberty.”

Stewart knew early in the season that Thornton would be exactly what the Liberty needed. “I was like, ‘Shit, this is great’,” Stewart said on May 27 about having Thornton as her teammate. “’I don’t have to go against her.’ Because if you’ve been guarded by KT, it’s physical. She’s like in you; she’s in all the things.”

And from the early days of training camp, Thornton knew that New York and the people around her were special. She said on Friday that her experience with the Liberty so far made her decision to remain in New York for the next two seasons easy.

“Playing with this group of girls has been something special,” Thornton said. “Just the city of New York, how they’ve welcomed me with open arms … it’s just been amazing. So to even have that offer, that’s just something I couldn’t turn down.”

It was hard for Thornton to pin down what has been the most special about her New York experience. But one thing she kept returning to was how everyone around her is so focused on winning a WNBA championship, something that she has yet to accomplish.

“We have a group of women that sacrificed to get to one goal, and that’s what’s special,” Thornton said.

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Thornton’s signing means that she’ll avoid free agency in 2024, and she joins Sabrina Ionescu, Courtney Vandersloot and Nyara Sabally as players who will return next season.

That’s only about a third of the 2023 roster locked in for next season, but there is also interest in extending Jones and Laney before free agency.

“We’d love to run this team back because we think [with] more time, we’re going to get better and better,” Brondello said on Friday.

Jones was asked on Friday about Thornton’s extension and how that affects her decision on where to play in 2024.

“So is it about me or Kayla?” Jones laughed. She characterized her experience so far with New York as “amazing” but said that she didn’t start the season the way she wanted. The staff, her teammates and others around the organization encouraged her to stay with it and knew that she would eventually feel comfortable on the court.

“I’ve been having those conversations,” she said about her future in New York. “Been talking with the coaching staff [and] the organization about everything, but [it’s] definitely made a great case for itself for me to stay here, and I understand that we’re building something special.”

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For the Liberty to continue to build something special, roster continuity ought to be a focus. Right now, Thornton is officially in the fold for the long haul. 

“New York just has so much to offer, just outside of basketball and dealing with basketball and just with our program and the future that we have,” Thornton said. “… I just want to be a part of something that is amazing.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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